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AI Tool Can Now Easily Identify Synthetic Drugs

by Emily Murray |  ❘ 

Synthetic Drugs Easier To Detect With AI Tool

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) tool for analyzing synthetic drugs. Up until now, psychoactive “designer drugs” have been difficult to identify with standard drug tests. This new AI tool not only easily detects synthetic substances but also can predict new chemical structures. 

This advancement in AI, called DarkNPS, could help to develop more accurate drug screening tests with faster results. While current tests can take weeks, or even months, this tool could deliver results in just a few hours. 

What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs are constructed in labs with the intention of imitating the effects of other drugs that may be illegal or hard to obtain. These substances are created by altering the original drug’s chemical structure. In doing so, synthetic drugs circumvent existing drug laws and safety standards. Although often marketed as being harmless “legal alternatives,” lack of regulations make the use of these substances extremely dangerous. 

Currently, the 2 most common types of synthetic drugs in the US are Cannabinoids and Cathinones. Synthetic Cannabinoids, like K2 and spice, emulate the effects of THC which is the main psychoactive compound in Marijuana. Manufactured Cathinones, like bath salts, mimic Stimulants such as Cocaine, Methamphetamines, and LSD. The effects of Opioids, Benzodiazepines, and Phenethylamines have also been replicated. Using these popular substances can have negative health effects such as anxiety, elevated blood pressure, hallucinations, seizures, chest pain, extreme paranoia, and violent behavior. 

The first US report of synthetic drugs occurred in 2008 when a shipment of spice was seized in Dayton, Ohio. To further avoid safety standards, synthetic substances are typically smuggled into the US after being manufactured in another country. Packaging usually reads “not safe for human consumption” or is mislabeled intentionally. 

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AI Detection Tool

Michael Skinnider, an MD/PhD student at the University of British Columbia worked to develop the new AI tool for synthetic drug detection. To achieve this, Skinnider and his colleagues collected over 1,700 known synthetic drugs from around the world. Tandem mass spectrometry, or Tandem MS, was used to examine the chemical structure of these substances. This technique breaks down ions of the substance into smaller fragments. In doing so, the AI tool was able to find patterns between the chemical structures of these collected drugs. With this information, the AI tool was able to predict 8.9 million potential synthetic drugs. 

After training this tool, the team of researchers at UBC tested the AI technology with 194 new synthetic drugs. The DarkNPS tool was able to recognize 174 of the tested substances by searching for the most common chemical structure patterns. This 89% accuracy rate supports the idea that DarkNPS can be used to anticipate and identify future synthetic drugs. 

Previously, the possibilities for new synthetic drugs were seemingly endless with an unknown amount of different chemical structures. With the ability to predict future structures, this tool could be helpful in narrowing down the search for harmful synthetic drugs. Additionally, DarkNPS could shorten the length of investigations. 

The Impact Of Synthetic Drugs

In addition to bypassing drug laws, synthetic drugs are cheaper to manufacture than other substances. Because they are created chemically, the supply chain needed to make and distribute synthetic drugs is reduced which can lead to more profits. The potency of synthetic substances also contributes to their appeal to manufacturers who can sell smaller amounts with the same effects. These substances are also frequently mixed with other more expensive drugs to lower production costs. 

The mixing of synthetic substances is one of the main reasons that using them is so dangerous. This is especially true for Fentanyl which is a synthetic Opioid and one of the leading causes of overdose deaths in the US. Originally created to treat cancer related pain, Fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than Morphine. This synthetic Opioid is frequently used to cut Heroin, unbeknownst to users. Because Fentanyl is almost impossible to detect, the amount present is very unpredictable.  

When individuals unknowingly consume a synthetic substance, there is a high chance for addiction, health issues, and overdose. Just last week, it was reported that US overdose deaths reached over 100,000 in the past year. This record-breaking number indicated an increase in synthetic Opioid overdose deaths as well. 

The AI tool created by UBC could be useful in preventing future overdose deaths from synthetic drugs. According to the study’s authors, several authorities from around the world have expressed interest in utilizing DarkNPS. 

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